Jim Leavitt's defense is preparing for both Khalil Tate and Rhett Rodriguez
Justin Herbert made his triumphant return last season at Arizona’s expense.
After missing five games with a fractured collarbone, Herbert passed for 235 yards and a touchdown during a 48-28 drubbing of the Wildcats at Autzen Stadium.
Entering the rematch, No. 19 Oregon is preparing for the possible return of Arizona starting quarterback Khalil Tate from injury.
First-year coach Kevin Sumlin hasn’t said publicly whether Tate or backup Rhett Rodriguez will get the start Saturday at Arizona Stadium (7:30 p.m., ESPN).
“Since it’s homecoming, I would say Khalil Tate,” Oregon sophomore cornerback Deommodore Lenoir predicted.
The Ducks (5-2, 2-2) held Tate to 191 total yards of offense with one touchdown and two interceptions in 2017. The dynamic dual-threat quarterback had rushed for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns in the previous six games.
In his last eight games since facing Jim Leavitt’s defense, Tate, who has been hobbled by an ankle injury all season, has averaged 28.3 yards rushing with three rushing touchdowns.
“We put in a game plan to stop Khalil Tate and force them to throw the ball,” Lenoir said. “I would say everybody watched the Oregon film and piggybacked off of that and created their own game plan.”
After facing Gardner Minshew, the nation’s leading passer, Oregon’s secondary is preparing for an Arizona offense that ranks 57th nationally in passing yards (242.3 per game).
The Ducks are 97th in passing yards allowed (251.0 per game) after yielding 323 yards and four touchdowns during last week’s 34-20 loss at Washington State.
“All I do is deal with us,” Sumlin said when asked about the Wildcats’ (3-5, 2-3) standing in the jumbled Pac-12 South Division standings. “We’re trying to beat the next opponent, and the next opponent is very talented.”
Tate has completed only 53.4 percent of his passes this season with 1,415 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. Rodriguez, the son of former Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, has completed 41 of 79 passes (51.9 percent) for 506 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
During last week’s 31-30 loss at UCLA, Rodriguez made his first career start and threw two interceptions.
“If it’s Rodriguez, it’s going to be a fun game for the secondary, I would say that,” said Lenoir, who intercepted Minshew twice. “Hopefully I can bring out a hat trick.”
Oregon leads the Pac-12 and is tied for eighth nationally with 11 interceptions, including seven in the last three games.
Lenoir is now tied with safeties Ugo Amadi and Jevon Holland for the team lead with three interceptions.
“Tremendous,” Leavitt said of Lenoir’s performance in Pullman. “He got on top of the receiver in that second half really well, got the pick. It was a mesh route, and he got the first pick that way, just had good eyes on the ball and did a good job.
“Wish we could have returned it a little bit, but it was two good picks.”
Arizona’s 53.3 completion percentage rate ranks last in the Pac-12 and 112th nationally. By comparison, Herbert has completed 61.8 percent of his passes this season.
The Wildcats have been leaning on the run game. J.J. Taylor is averaging 102.1 yards rushing with four touchdowns and is third in the FBS in all-purpose yards (164.4 per game).
“We’ve seen their traits and what they do and how they run the offense,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said of preparing for both Tate and Rodriguez. “Their offense has continually gotten better and better as the weeks go by. They’re complemented by a tremendous running game as well.”
Arizona’s loss to the Bruins at the Rose Bowl was its third of the season by five or fewer points.
Despite the disappointing start to the season for Tate and the Wildcats, Cristobal noted that he was on the Alabama sideline when Johnny Manziel led Sumlin’s 2012 Texas A&M team to a win over the top-ranked Crimson Tide.
“I know the types of problems that (Sumlin’s offense) poses for opponents, and he has a great feel for the game,” Cristobal said. “He creates mismatches. He creates air and space for athletes to make plays, and they certainly have a lot of athletes.”